Dublin’s Rising Guitar Bands Are Too Good (and Loud) to Ignore
From Fontaines D.C.'s poetic punk to bands like Just Mustard and The Murder Capital, the Irish capital (and its surrounding towns) is turned all the way up.
Fontaines DC live at a DIY Mag event in 2018 (Photo by Luis Kramer via PR)
It’s fitting that, when I arrive in Dublin to meet Fontaines D.C., it’s absolutely tipping it down. After all, frontman Grian Chatte squawks "Dublin in the rain is mine,” on the Irish punks’ album opener “Big” – a confident assertion from a band who’ve quickly soared to the top of their home city’s new punk scene. As we stroll around the streets, water clopping around our heels, it quickly becomes clear that that declaration at the heart of “Big” is entirely accurate; this rain-soaked scene belongs to Fontaines D.C.
That debut album Dogrel, due 12 April on Partisan Records, is at turns ferocious and flowery, loud and lyrical, straightened out by a decidedly poetic backbone. Dogrel itself is named after a rough-edged type of Irish working class poetry that’s often looked down upon by elites. “There’s an idea around poetry that it’s something older,” says Fontaines D.C. guitarist Carlos O’Connell. “There’s nothing pretentious about it. There’s all these ideas around it that don’t allow people to enjoy poetry as much. What we want to do with our poetry is bring it to a normal level – you don’t have to be educated, or know anything about poetry, you just have to enjoy it.”
That jagged lyrical bent is something that unites this new breed of Irish musicians. Sonically disparate, but united by an authentic approach to personal and political punk, the likes of The Murder Capital and Just Mustard are building a new, more energised musical future for a country too often pinned as the home of U2, fiddles, and not much more. “It’s alive again,” says Fontaines bassist Conor Deegan III, who completes the band alongside guitarist Connor Curley, and drummer Tom Coll. “There’s so many things going on in Ireland, socially and politically, that for so long were not being talked about. It feels like there’s a coherent voice for our generation again.”
While these bands are all vocal about everything from Ireland’s position in the Brexit debate to the Repeal The 8th campaign (Carlos wore a ‘REPEAL’ sweater for their widely-shared KEXP live session last summer), they’re more keen to address the ways these issues affect everyday people than they are to impart grand, overtly-political statements. “I think addressing political issues too directly is bad, because it can really date your art,” says Conor, “and beyond that, it’s not really deep art. Addressing things in a more social way, or a more personal, experiential way, can reflect those issues just as well.”
“You can be energised and inspired by political occurrences and social occurrences, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come out ostensibly in your art,” adds Grian. Conversation turns, perhaps inevitably, to Ireland’s most-maligned musical son. “I think Bono traumatised Ireland,” Grian states, completely deadpan, to a tableful of laughter. “No one’s gonna touch being an overly-political band in Ireland for another 150 years. I like U2, but I went to see them last year, and he got a big flag of the European Union up behind him. He didn’t even say anything! He just goes, ‘May the gold stars... light our way... to the right choice’ – like an acid-tripping priest! He’s just full of his own hot air.” I heard more from them, and from other acts driving this thundering scene through Dublin.
When I first arrive in Dublin, I duck into The Workman’s Club – a sort of hub and frequent drinking spot for this emergent gaggle of bands. While his bandmates were up til the early hours DJing at the Garage bar across the road, and thus are somewhat slower to arrive, Grian is buried in a book at the back of the room long before lunchtime.
Scenes like this defined Fontaines D.C.’s earliest days, they say: meeting in pubs and bars around Dublin (including the very room we’re in today) to trade and read poetry, both others’ and their own. Those scribbles soon became lyrics. From there, they rehearsed, sharing a space with fellow Dubliners and longtime inspiration, Girl Band. “They presented a new Dublin, and a new Ireland, to us,” says Grian. “The lyrics are colloquial, and quite Dublin-specific – “chicken fillet rolls” and stuff like that. They brought those things, for the first time, into Dublin music. Before that, the only way to sound Irish was to be fuckin’ ‘diddly-diddly-aye’. They modernised Irish music massively.”
Fontaines took it upon themselves to take that new musical language, and incorporate it into the Irish lyrical culture they were so enamoured by. “It was embryonic – we were just figuring things out,” says bassist Conor. Before long, they hit gold – a hypnotic, noise-influenced take on poetic punk. A menacing live show came with it; word-of-mouth praise soon followed. “Instead of trying to find a gap between two genres, or two bands,” says Grian, “we found individuality through focussing on ourselves. It was very much a case of looking inwards, instead of looking outwards, for inspiration.”
Dogrel is a document of those inner turmoils. From “Too Real”’s breakneck charge to the heart of life’s endless repetition, to the escapist bent of “Boys In The Better Land” (“Doesn’t matter what you are / Get yourself a good car, get out of here”), there’s a feeling of exorcism in both Dogrel’s content, and the band’s leave-it-all-on-stage live demeanour. “There’s such an incredible sense of disillusionment,” shrugs Grian, Conor picking up his bandmate’s train of thought: “The governments, quite transparently and obviously, don’t have the people's best interests at heart. It’s the pseudo-reality of ‘Oh, everything’s fine!’ That’s really fucked up. It fills you with anxiety.” Carlos sums it up: “At times like that, what do you have to turn to? One of those things is music.’
“I dunno what the culture of this decade is,” says Grian. “There’s no real sense of community, because it’s all been swept onto people’s phones. Everyone feels lonely, and at the same time, no one’s ever had more options for talking to other people. That’s what we want – to achieve a sense of community.“
The Murder Capital
“I fuckin’ hate EPs, man,” grunts Murder Capital frontman James McGovern. “It’s like a novella – just gimme the book, or gimme a poem.” And fair play. Until this year, Dublin five-piece The Murder Capital’s reputation was built almost solely on word of mouth rather than a drip-feed of “projects” or EPs introducing them to listeners. Filling out progressively bigger rooms in Ireland without a single track online, their live show has become the stuff of local indie scene near-legend. They sold out The Workman’s Club’s 300-cap room towards the end of last year – yet more evidence that this underground Dublin scene is thriving. “We’re all inspired by each other,” says James, “but a true scene comes when people are doing their own thing, I think.”
So far, the band have put out just one live session (“More Is Less”, recorded in Dublin space Herbert Place Studios) and one single, January’s “Feeling Fades”. Both, however, have done a valiant job of presenting The Murder Capital as one of the Emerald Isle’s most punishing new groups. This is guitar music at its most bellowing, James’s booming voice coming off like a football hooligan and pulpit-bound priest in equal measure. They were keen to hold themselves back, and make as simple and impactful a statement as possible, they explain – as the title of that first taster proclaimed, “more is less”.
Looking ahead, and with that distaste for EPs well-established, they’re barrelling straight into a full-length. Their self-imposed aim? To capture the rawness of that infamous live show. With that in mind, they’re loosening their tight grip over things, just a little. “It’s like Leonard Cohen said: ‘it’s the cracks that let the light in’,” says James. “We’re meditating on that a lot, recently.”
Based an hour outside of Dublin, in Dundalk, Just Mustard’s ambition is no less lofty. Take Wednesday, their debut album, self-released last summer. A beguiling combination of smoky shoegaze and jagged, harsh noise, like Warpaint wielding a chainsaw, it saw them turn heads across the country. A Choice Music Prize nomination soon followed (think the Mercury Prize, but Irish). It was an odd setting for them, singer Katie Ball remembers. “Because it’s for TV, as well, the room is really bright,” she says with a laugh, “So it’s hard to open your eyes.”
Though Just Mustard started out sounding more folky, the five-piece shoegazers of today came about in late 2016, as Katie tell me. “There was a transition,” in those early days. “We started investing in new guitar pedals and playing around with different noises. Instead of trying to write songs, we’d try to write around noises.” It’s an evolution that’s ongoing – free of label constraints and the pressures placed on bands in London and the surrounding area, they’ve been able to keep mutating the Mustard sound. New material is coming thick and fast.
These days, it’s “one thing after another”. In the months since Wednesday’s release, they’ve amassed a cult-like following in Ireland – a support slot on Fontaines D.C.’s upcoming UK tour looks set to break them into mainstream consciousness. “The Irish music scene is in great shape at the minute,” says Katie. “I think Irish music has always been a lot broader than the stereotypes. It’s great that now, so many of the bands who exist outside of that stereotype are being recognised overseas, without the need to pander to any trends, or expectations.”
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